Cultural heritage, superheroes and me – guest post by Gillian Polack

I love talking about a new novel just before it gets released. It gives me a chance to explore some of the more entertaining aspects of my work. Mostly, people are asking me about ghosts, for this new novel is called The Time of the Ghosts and will be released this weekend. It’s as much about Australia’s heritage from Europe as about ghosts. And it’s about superheroes.

Alas, Croatia doesn’t appear in the various elements of cultural heritage I explore in this particular novel. One of the characters in Ms Cellophane is Croatian-Australian, however. She was inspired by my next door neighbours when I was a child.

I always know the cultural background of my characters. How can you know what a character will feed friends for dinner if you don’t know what her background is? I made this comment in passing to another writer, who apparently just makes the background up as the plot requires it. I can’t do that. This got me thinking, though. What sort of baggage do people carry round with this? What cultural stuff appears in our everyday without us knowing?

I’ve been researching this as academically for some time, but I hadn’t thought about writing a novel about it.

I didn’t, at first, write a novel about it, in fact. I edited an anthology (Baggage) where other Australian writers explored the subject. While I edited them, I got my thoughts in order. I realised I had to write a novel where the cultural baggage manifested in the landscape. There was a reason for this manifestation: it didn’t just happen. That reason was fear.

It’s very timely that the book is being released now, when Australia is idiotically fearful. We punish people for being different at this precise moment. My book is very much of this zeitgeist: what happens when our fears manifest? I wrote it before things got so bad, and now want to write a utopian novel of peace and joy, because if the spirit of my novels comes true, then happiness is better than fear.

There are no riots in Australia’s current state of fear. Australia does riots rarely and it does them inefficiently. There are ghosts. There are supernatural beings. There are moving streets and lost paths. And there are very Australian superheroes.

When people ask “What would an Australian superhero be like?” they tend to think of Bondi Rescue or Steve Irwin or Crocodile Dundee. This is the male public image. Superman and Wolverine. What if there were a private one? There’s a whole group of people who could keep a secret and maintain their normal lives and no-one would ask.

I talked to my mother about this, when she turned 75. “Could you be a super hero without anyone noticing?” Her answer was as long as she turned up at my sisters’ places every couple of weeks for dinner, it was perfectly possible.

The lives of the elderly are far more private than the lives of the young and muscular. And they don’t have to earn a living. Just as long as doctor’s appointments and volunteer work and family obligations are taken care of, they can do whatever they like.

I left doctor’s appointments and volunteer work and family obligations out of the novel. They’re happening in my characters’ lives, but they are mostly unseen by the reader. This is to balance the fact that, in my everyday world, the heroic world of the elderly happens out of sight.

This story is also about when my three superheroes take on an apprentice. They break all kinds of rules to do so. They don’t care. If someone scolds them, they will make Lil (who looks the most fragile) sort it out and everyone will chalk it up to ‘old people do strange things.’ Except no-one asks. This is based on a focus group I got together, just to check that I was writing from a sound basis. I was astonished to find that so much of such an important sector of our community goes unnoticed. They could be super-villains if they wanted to. I chose to make mine heroes because of my mother. At 81 she has just retired from several days a week guiding at a museum and is now reclaiming her social life, for she only has one day’s volunteer work a week to do. That day’s work is on the railroad.

I should’ve left out the ghosts, left out the cultural baggage and just written a novel about an elderly woman who works on the railroad.



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